Just as in the case of Tunisia, we’ve been caught off guard by the rapid pace of events in Egypt. Commentators are having a difficult time understanding the dynamics of the Arab world and especially the role of religion in this latest apparent revolution. Many wonder why this isn’t an Islamic Revolution, and are audibly breathing a sigh of relief that it isn’t — assuming that somehow Egypt would follow Iran’s rather unique trajectory in 1979 and thereafter.
So why isn’t Egypt’s revolution an Islamic one? And what sets Tunisia and Egypt apart from Iran? Due to the quickly shifting nature of events, I’ve recorded four reasons why Egypt’s uprising isn’t an explicitly Islamic one.
1) The political Islamism that ended up triumphing in Iran was a much more authoritarian interpretation of Islam. It specifically embraced political power and preached a narrative of resistance, though its victory in Iran paradoxically ended any chance of victory elsewhere. That’s because when elites and other, non-religious ideological forces in neighboring Muslim countries saw the purges of prior elites taking place in Iran, they immediately became skeptical of working alongside Islamists in their own country.
Islamic challenges to regimes in Tajikistan, Algeria and Tunisia, among others, were violently supressed even though they pursued their goals democratically. Most Islamists learned from this brutal experience and grew from it; Egypt’s most powerful Muslim group, the Muslim Brotherhood, was one such group. It’s probably safe to say that Iran was the only victory for this style of Islamism, and now, some 30-plus years later, its moment has largely passed. The geopolitical, economic and social reasons for its emergence have disappeared.
2) Iran’s Islamist opposition to the Shah was shaped by the peculiarities of Shi’a Islam and Iranian history. Shi’as have a more organized and powerful clergy than Sunnis, and Iran’s clergy, unlike Egypt’s, were much more independent of the state. In Egypt today, among the main trends in Islamic practice are a quietist Salafism, which seeks a rigorous but non-political personal morality, and the Muslim Brotherhood.
And while the Brotherhood is an incredibly large and powerful organization, it is today a product of years of suppression, torture, and intimidation. While it seeks to change society, it does not pursue an explicitly political agenda. Rather, it believes that an ideal politics will be achieved once society is Islamized — in other words, enough introduction of Muslim values into popular culture, and society will simply reform itself — and that includes the state. So while they have political ideals, they certainly don’t have an explicit political program.
That said, it’s no surprise that the Brotherhood weren’t out ahead in the recent protests: They’ve largely eschewed street politics (it ends with their members electrocuted in jails). It’s also worth considering, although this is still conjectural, whether the Brotherhood declined to play a more public role even after they caught up to events on the street precisely because they know a more prominent role for themselves could draw negative attention. I’m sure the Brotherhood knows that Mubarak would love to have Islamists to blame for the uprising. It would make our government support for his crackdown that much easier to obtain.
3) People who study Iran know how vexed the relationship is, and has been, between Persian cultural identity and Islam. While many Iranians before the revolution were religious in a non-political way, the country’s elite tended to see Islam and Persianness as mutually incompatible. On the other hand, Egypt is a proudly Arab society (hint: the Arab Republic of Egypt) which has never seen Islam as incompatible with their specific ethnic and national project.
Arabness and Islam are hard to pull apart, such that the late Michel Aflaq, the founder of the Arab nationalist Ba’ath Party — he was a Christian — praised Islam as an achievement of the Arab cultural genius. (Many Muslims wouldn’t take too kindly to such a reading, but there you have it.) That difference in dynamics between Egypt and Iran needs to be stressed.
While Iran’s Shah campaigned against Islam and sought to erase its role in Persian history and culture, Mubarak never attacked Islam with anywhere near the same vehemence. He’s far more concerned with preserving power for himself than he is with rewriting Egyptian history (unfortunately for his prospects of remaining in power, he’s concerned with himself–and not even for Egypt’s advancement, unlike other Third World dictatorships, which do emphasize and achieve real economic growth). And this brings us to the most important point…
4) Egypt’s revolution doesn’t have to be Islamic because Islam isn’t at the heart of the problem on the ground. In fact, the non-political Egyptian Islam of the last few decades has succeeded in deeply Islamizing Egyptian culture, making Muslim piety interwoven with the everyday rhythms of Egyptian life. We saw this in the protests after the Friday prayers today, in the spontaneous congregational prayers that took place in the heat of demonstrations–and we can see it in the number of Egyptian women who veil (though many don’t and still strongly identify with Islam, whether culturally or religiously, personally or publicly).
Egypt’s society is a deeply Muslim one, and the very success of this non-political religious project has negated the need for a confrontational Islam. Egyptians know their religious identity is not under threat. ElBaradei, for example, joined in Friday prayers today before going out into the streets. Whether Egyptians identify with political Islam or secular democracy, their Arabness and Islam tend to be mutually supportive, and certainly not incompatible.
Where there is a danger is that if the United States does not come out explicitly in favor of the people, subsequent events will become more confrontational, and may even see the introduction of a more cultural and civilizational rhetoric. The Shah monopolized power and sought to erase a culture. Mubarak, for all his brutality, has had no such grandiose presumption.
As an aside, I might also add that Muslim societies often have flourishing religious institutions and practices, organic and varied. But in the case of Iran, the regime paradoxically undermined that popular and organic religiosity when they sought to enforce faith through the state. This is an argument for keeping religion and politics separate in the Muslim world: in the interest of defending both from the negative effects of the other. Egypt’s “secular” dictator, who didn’t meddle too far into his people’s religious life — he was no Shah, and no Ben Ali — hasn’t created a sharp cultural divide in his country (the economic one is something else altogether). So why would Egyptians need, want, or stress, an Islamic Revolution?